Shamrocks and shrouds

SOUTH BOSTON -- The pots of green shamrocks at the foot of the St. Patrick statue matched the green palms adorning the high altar at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on March 17. This year, the Monday of Holy Week was marked with an Irish twist in honor of the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Boston.

As on other St. Patrick’s Days, Massgoers wore green, the readings were proclaimed in Gaelic, the prayer of the saint was recited, “Lady of Knock” was sung and the statue of St. Patrick was prominently placed at the front of the cathedral behind a bed of shamrocks. But this year St. Patrick’s was the only statue not shrouded for Holy Week.

St. Patrick’s Day, which always falls in Lent, rarely falls during Holy Week. The last time it happened was 1940, and it will not happen again until 2060. As rare as it is for the two to coincide, it is rarer still for the saint to be commemorated during a Holy Week celebration. Many dioceses moved or simply skipped the feast day, but Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley made the decision to mark the life of St. Patrick at the Mass for Monday of Holy Week.

“This year St. Patrick’s Day falls during Holy Week, and we are not allowed to have the liturgical celebration of St. Patrick during that week. An option would have been to move the feast; however, the official calendar of the Church has already moved St. Joseph’s Day to Saturday, and I was loath to move St. Patrick’s Day to a Friday in Lent,” said Cardinal O’Malley in his Feb. 22 blog post.

Cardinal O’Malley began his homily March 17 by greeting the large crowd in Gaelic. He spoke about the importance of St. Patrick’s Day, both in the Church and in places with much Irish influence like Boston.

He also noted that St. Patrick himself was not Irish but was kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of 16. He spent six years as a slave before escaping and returning home.

“It’s one of those examples in history, I believe, where we see how God brings something good out of something evil,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

Not only did the experience rouse St. Patrick’s faith, but it also prompted him to return to Ireland to evangelize the people. He was so successful that Ireland became a “center of evangelization,” and Irish monks built churches and monasteries in many parts of Europe.

Having a deep relationship with Christ led St. Patrick to give his life in service to God. When people come to know God, they want to give everything to him, the cardinal said.

As did Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, who in the Gospel reading made a dramatic gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet with a liter of perfumed oil.

“Good perfume is very expensive, I am told. I don’t know how much Chanel No. 5 costs, but 300 denarii is one year’s wages. It was a fortune,” he said. “I am sure that that flask of perfume was her most prized possession. She wanted to give it all to Jesus.”

The reading ends with the ominous information that because Jesus raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead, some people came to believe in Jesus and others plotted to kill Lazarus, he said.

“If we’re living lives of the resurrection, faithful to our baptismal vows, two things will happen -- others will be led to believe in Christ and we will earn the resentment of those who despise the Gospel,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “We need disciples who are courageous witnesses of the Gospel, ready to stand up for their ideals, their Catholic faith and proclaim it boldly by lives of fidelity and service.”

Then the cardinal encouraged everyone to “do the works of Patrick” who understood that the love of Christ must be shared with others.

Following the homily, Cardinal O’Malley blessed the shamrocks, which were distributed after the Mass.

Holding two of the small potted plants, Mary “Mim” Connors said she is honored that the feast of St. Patrick is an important celebration in Boston. Connors moved to Boston from Ireland in 1963 and said she likes to pick up the shamrock plants at the Mass each year.

“I am proud of the fact that I’m Irish,” she said.

Cora Flood, also from Ireland, said she enjoyed the way Cardinal O’Malley weaved the history of St. Patrick through Holy Week and the challenges Christians face today.

“That makes it very real,” she said.

Flood, who works for the Irish Pastoral Center in Quincy, said the center organizes a trip to the St. Patrick’s Day Mass each year. Many Irish immigrants have moved to the suburbs, and since many of them are elderly, they need assistance in order to travel into Boston for the celebration, she said.

“They love to get their shamrock,” she said.